Statehouse roundup, 1.25.22: Tromp gets grilled on social-justice spending

President Marlene Tromp touted Boise State University’s achievements — and faced a repeated, pointed line of questioning — as she made her annual Statehouse budget presentation Tuesday.

The questions centered on the issue that defined the 2021 higher education budget debate: social justice programs on campus.

Three times, Rep. Ron Nate asked Tromp to address last year’s $1.5 million cut to the Boise State budget — and the Legislature’s call to rein in “wasteful spending” on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Instead, Nate said, Boise State seems to have simply added to its social justice portfolio.

“Am I missing something?” asked Nate, R-Rexburg.

Tromp said the university has taken the Legislature’s orders seriously — including extensive work “educating our students and our faculty and staff” about the importance of freedom of thought.

At no point did Tromp provide specifics about program cuts. Instead, she said, Boise State “evolved” its programs. “I would say that matches the desire of the law,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we have to reduce the kinds of offerings that are available to our students.”

One lawmaker came to Tromp’s defense: Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, twice objected to Nate’s repeated questions.

Nate persisted, pleading his case to JFAC co-chair, Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa.

“I should be able to ask a question that is budget-related without being interrupted,” he said. Agenbroad then gave Nate the floor for a third question on spending cuts.

The exchanges over spending cuts came as Tromp made a pitch for new budget line items at Boise State.

One would create 10 new positions and build out one of Tromp’s outreach initiatives: the Community Impact Program, which assigns faculty mentors to online students in six rural communities.

Already, the program is showing promise, she said Tuesday. While rural college enrollment has declined by up to 50% during the pandemic, Boise State is seeing enrollment increases in the CIP pilot communities ranging from 26% to 50%. And those are increases over and above the numbers of students in the CIP program.

“That’s going to make a real difference in those communities,” she said.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, asked Tromp about the impact — and the cost — of another enrollment trend: Boise State’s influx in out-of-state enrollment. As Idaho Education News reported in November, a majority of last fall’s first-year students came from out of state, for the first time in Boise State’s 89-year history.

Tromp said the university has responded in two ways: by increasing admissions requirements for out-of-state students, and making additional university scholarships available for in-state students.

“But we also know that, because out-of-state students pay more for their education, it actually helps support our Idaho students,” Tromp said.

JFAC continues a week of higher education discussions Wednesday, when community college presidents make their budget pitch. The committee will take up budgets for Idaho State University and the University of Idaho later in the week.

‘We cannot be leaner than we are’

Lewis-Clark State College will need a 5.5% tuition increase just to tread water, President Cynthia Pemberton told JFAC Tuesday.

Like other colleges and universities, the Lewiston-based Lewis-Clark is struggling to hold onto employees; its turnover rates range from 10% for faculty to 29% for classified staff. “It’s not a surprise that they’re finding higher-paying opportunities elsewhere,” Pemberton said.

Gov. Brad Little has recommended a 5% pay raise for state employees, but the Legislature doesn’t fully fund pay raises in higher education, forcing colleges and universities to pick up the difference. So Pemberton says she’s left with two options. She could simply give out the money the state provides for employee pay, providing raises that won’t keep up pace with inflation. Or she could seek a tuition increase to cover a 5% raise.

Cutting positions is not an option, she said. Lewis-Clark cut about 50 positions from a staff of 450 to navigate a budget crunch that preceded the pandemic. “We cannot be leaner than we are.”

A 5.5% tuition increase translates to $384 per year. Lewis-Clark’s in-state tuition stands at $6,984.

Legislators will decide on Little’s pay raise proposal, but the State Board of Education and the college and university presidents will decide on tuition this spring. The state’s four-year schools have frozen tuition for two years, but on Monday, State Board President Kurt Liebich said a tuition increase could be inevitable this year.

Bill expanding scholarships for military families emerges

Rep. Chris Mathias hopes to expand scholarship eligibility for the children of deceased and disabled military members.

An existing state scholarship program is only available to applicants who had a parent killed or permanently and totally disabled in combat. A new bill from Mathias would expand eligibility to students’ whose parents were killed or permanently and totally disabled (by the Social Security Administration’s definition) in military training.

Mathias, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, presented the bill in response to the Black Hawk Helicopter crash that killed three pilots during a training exercise near Lucky Peak nearly a year ago. The crash drew national headlines for its rarity and fatality in early February of 2021.

“In the ensuing days, I contacted the Office of the State Board of Education just to make sure that when the three soldiers’ collective eight children grow up, that they will be eligible to apply for the scholarship program that we created,” Mathias, D-Boise, told the House Education Committee Tuesday.

They would not be eligible under the current system, which motivated the proposed change, he said.

The Armed Forces and Public Safety Officer Scholarship includes a waiver of tuition and fees at Idaho public colleges and universities and covers the costs of on-campus housing. It also provides awardees $500 per semester to cover costs like book purchases.

The scholarship can also be used at career-technical colleges, per the law that created it.

Only one student has been denied the scholarship in recent decades because their parent died in training rather than combat, as far as Mathias knows, he said. He hopes passage of his bill will stop that from happening again.

The House Education Committee unanimously introduced the proposal with no debate Tuesday. Next, it could receive a public hearing from the committee and be voted onto the House floor.

Self-directed learner bill gets a rewrite

Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn-R, Emmett, asked his committee to nix an old version of his “self-directed learner” bill and introduce a revised one.

Both the original and new versions would allow K-12 students who demonstrate that they’re “self-directed learners” to enjoy “flexible attendance,” attend school virtually, and have “extended learning opportunities” inside and outside the classroom.

Both versions would allow school districts and charter schools to count self-directed learners as always in attendance, even if they are not, so that districts and charters can collect their attendance-based funding from the state.

What’s new?: In the old version, teachers would largely have the power to determine who is a “self-directed learner,” based on mastery of classroom content.

  • In the new one, district superintendents and school boards would share more of a role in determining what constitutes a self-directed learner.

The original bill did set up some criteria for determining which students are designated self-directed learners.

  • The new version mandates that students meet more of the requirements in the original bill, via a technical change.

Thayn said Tuesday he made the revisions in response to “good suggestions” from Paul Stark, Executive Director of the Idaho Education Association.

Where the bill came from: Wilder Superintendent Jeff Dillon was “instrumental” in helping write the bill, Thayn said Tuesday.

Jeff Dillon

Advocating for the bill in front of the Senate Education Committee, Dillon said Wilder has adopted a model similar to the one laid out in the bill.

“We’ve allowed (certain) students to be on campus six hours a day. We allow them to choose the time (that) they’re on campus. We allow them freedom to take as long … a lunch as they want to. We allow those students to have their phones … as much as they want. They’ve earned it. And what we found was this ability and freedom to … coauthor … learning drove the students to be successful in their learning,” Dillon told the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, questioned why schools can’t currently create such a designation under existing state law.

Dillon replied that while his district allows its self-directed learners to choose when they’re on campus to a degree, there are limitations on doing so, since the state typically funds districts based on students’ average daily attendance. (For the second year in a row, the State Board of Education made a temporary change to fund schools based on their enrollment through the end of the school year.)

Up next: The new bill’s likely to get a hearing and vote in the committee. A successful vote would send it to the Senate floor.

Idaho PTA backs all-day kindergarten

The Idaho Parent Teacher Association briefed both education committees on its priorities for the legislative session. Perhaps most notably, the group is endorsing state funding for universal full-day kindergarten, in line with requests from Gov. Brad Little and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

“This is not a new ask or a new priority for the PTA,” Vice President of Advocacy Maria Loucher told House Education in a prepared speech.

The group will also back a proposal they say Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, will propose this session. His “Parental Rights Protection of Minors Act” would aim to reduce children’s access to pornography online by mandating that internet-enabled devices sold in Idaho be equipped with password-locked parental controls out of the factory, said Loucher. Adults could easily choose to turn off the parental controls for themselves or their children if they wish, she said.

The Idaho PTA advocates for policies at the Statehouse on behalf of its members. Tuesday was the group’s annual “advocacy day” at the Capitol, in which it planned to host guest speakers and events around the Statehouse.

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